After nearly one year without a Government, Spain brought Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) back into power as a minority government on the 29th of October 2016. This avoided a third general election in December (the first one was held on 20th of December 2015). Many Spanish citizens living abroad reiterated how difficult it was to vote in the second general election, held on the 26th June, after applying for their voting ballots. In some cases, ballots either did not arrive at their correct destinations, or they did arrive but missed the due date. These are simply the latest in a long line of complaints directed at the process of voting from abroad, which has caused a dramatic decrease in the participation since 2011. Despite this fact, the Spanish Congress voted against repealing this process with the ones of the Popular Party, the Socialist Party and the Citizens Pary on 20th of October 2016.
Laura Medina, Tanausú Vilches & Pau Llosa
In Spain, voting from abroad is known as ‘voto rogado’ (literally ‘begged vote’), and involves applying for ballot papers from local consulates and embassies. This process was established as part of an electoral reform to update the electoral register and make the application process easier – but, this has instead resulted in the process becoming more complex.
Voters must apply for a form from their consulate, send it via fax, e-mail or post (along with their personal documentation) to the appropriate electoral office, and then wait until the electoral commission from their region sends the ballot papers to their place of residence. Once the ballots are received, the voter must cast their vote, either by post, or by physically placing it in authorised ballot boxes at their local embassy or consulate.
This electoral law reform was passed in 2011, with the support of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the People’s Party (PP), Convergence and Union (CIU), and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), in order to clarify the laws surrounding voting from abroad. However, the reform has in fact been detrimental as it has caused a lower voter turnout. Before the reform, in the 2008 general election, 31.73% of citizens living abroad voted; but after the reform, in the 2015 general elections, participation fell to only 4.95%.
Rather than speeding up the voting process and making it easier and more reliable for Spanish expatriates, the 2011 reform has instead created a number of inconveniences which make it more difficult to vote. Bureaucratic obstacles caused by the reform have slowed down the whole process and turned it into an epic odyssey which has exhausted many expatriates applying for their voting papers. A combination of a lack of resources and information, dis-coordination between some consulates and embassies, short time periods in which to vote, the fact that the voter must be present when voting, as well as the costs which voters must pay, has caused less of these voters to actually turn out and vote.
There have been many different stories written in the media about Spaniards who have not been able to complete the ‘voto rogado’ process, and Cosmopolita Scotland has spoken to several of these people to ask them about the difficulties they have faced. However, this is only a rough idea of a problem which has stirred up a lot of debate in the Spanish expatriate community.
Cristina E. Lozano, living in Voss, Norway: “For those of us who live abroad, voting is really important and means a lot to us”
Cristina Lozano is one of the two million Spaniards currently living abroad. At the start of April, she went to work in Voss in Norway. Before leaving, she researched how to vote by post from Spain. However, this was not yet possible since the elections hadn’t been organised at that time. That left her with the only option of sending her vote from Norway.
However, this option soon began to seem impossible once Cristina realised the difficulties involved in the process. It required her to arrive at the embassy at a specific time with the required money: “For me, it took six hours on a train to get to Oslo, and then another six to actually return, as well as losing one or two days of work and money.” After going to the embassy, Cristina then had to wait for the ballot papers to arrive on time: “Last time – [in December’s election] – I tried to vote from Thailand, but the ballot didn’t arrive.”
Cristina’s last choice was to use an abstaining voter who lived in Spain, in the same electoral constituency as her, who would vote for her chosen party. This idea came from the ‘Save My Vote’ campaign, which was started by Marea Granate (an online collective of Spanish expatriates) during the 2014 European elections, and was finally formalised during the general election last December. In its latest consultation, Marea Granate has not formally promoted this campaign in order to not ‘be a tool in papering over the cracks of the ‘ruego de voto’ system’, as they have told Cosmopolita Scotland. However, this movement has caused those affected to organise themselves into an informal movement, via social media, to find people who can vote on their behalf.
Marea Granate defines itself as: “a transnational and non-politically affiliated movement created by Spanish emigrants and their supporters, whose objective is to fight against the causes and people which have created the economic and social crisis that has forced these emigrants to leave Spain. The movement was born amidst other social movements which have appeared in Spain in recent years, and represents people who live outside the country. This ‘tide’ of people is maroon, like the colour of Spanish passports, and is a symbol of forced emigration from Spain.”
Thanks to a ‘vote donor’, Cristina was able to cast her vote in the election: “I looked for a person who wasn’t going to vote and so who could do so for me instead,” she says. She highlights how important voting is for expatriate citizens: “For those of us who live abroad, voting is really important and means a lot to us […] You want to vote, and exercise your rights, because you see what’s going on in Spain, you see the situation there, and you want to do everything in your power to change it. Not for yourself, so much, but for the people you have left behind there, which is what really hurts, in my opinion at least.
Llibertt Méndez, living in Edinburgh, Scotland: “I went to the consulate to double check that they had all my personal information”
Llibert’s case represents one of the most common situations. Many other expatriates living in the Scottish capital, like Jordi Albacete and Pau Llosa from Catalonia, also went through the same ordeal that Llibert went through. All of them followed the necessary procedures, within the set time periods, but the ballot papers never arrived. This is the second time this has happened to Llibert, who points out that it happened even though she went to the consulate to check that they had all her personal details.
For Jordi, who requested his ballot papers after having changed address, they didn’t arrive at his new residence. When he asked Royal Mail about this, they informed him that the letter with his ballot paper was being held at London’s Heathrow Airport for ten days, after which the ballot would be returned to the electoral office in Barcelona.
When Ballot Papers Arrive a Day Late
There are lots of similar stories to Jordi’s on Marea Granate’s Twitter account; like the stories of Spanish citizens living in Canada whose documents arrived the day after the elections: “It’s almost like a joke made in bad taste…but today, on the 27th June 2016, our papers have arrived. Sometimes fate is very cruel.” Carlos García, who lives in Doha, Qatar, also claims that his papers arrived a day late.
José Luis Vilches Zájara also could not vote on the 26th June. In his case, he received an envelope supposedly containing his ballot papers. But, when he opened the envelope, there was no trace of the papers. José has been living in Dusseldorf, Germany, for almost nine years, but says that this was the first time that this has happened to him.
After the disappointment he felt at not being able to vote, José began a series of endless, unsuccessful phone calls to different organisations to try and solve the problem. He first contacted the general consulate in Dusseldorf, via social media, where they explained to him that he could pick up his papers directly from the consulate. Several days later he went from Remscheid, his current place of residence, to the consulate in Dusseldorf, a journey which took about half an hour. Upon arriving at the consulate, the staff told him that they did not have his papers, and so the torment of phone calls began again. First he contacted his electoral board in Andalusia, who in turn referred him to the Zone Electoral Board, which then passed responsibility on to the provincial electoral board. Time passed, and no one gave José a solution.
Bureaucracy forced José to make one final call to the National Institute of Statistics and Census. There, after asking him to look inside the envelope ‘to see if the papers had gotten stuck inside it’, they said that they would send him some new one straight away, through first-class mail. But the time window for casting his vote through the consulate had passed, and José still hadn’t received his ballot papers. A friend of his from the Basque Country, however, had better luck: “She asked to vote via mail, like me, and hasn’t had a single problem.”
Marea Granate’s Analysis
Marea Granate was still receiving complaints, even ten days after the election, about faults with the voting process. The organisation has a team investigating how voting abroad works. Cosmopolita Scotland has contacted this team to ask them to produce a report on participation and recorded incidents. Marea Granate has filed 232 cases which involve different types of problem, which are usually due to consulates, electoral boards, or even mail services, and which come about during different parts of the voting process:
- During the registration, claim and application processes: Some consulates have been accused of bad practices, lack of communication, and giving out false information.
- During the admission process: Irregularities happen during this process when application forms are rejected due to the mobility of those registered in the Electoral Census of Absent (people registered as permanent residents in another country). Issues like changing address after the deadline can cause problems for voters when it comes to receiving their ballot papers. Also, authorities are sometimes late informing voters about their mistakes so they can amend them within the deadlines given within the Organic Law on the General Electoral System.
- Mailing papers out: Problems are created by printing errors on ballots. This is what happened in Pontevedra, where copies of two ballots of the Union, Progress and Democracy Party (UPYD) were sent out, but ballots for the En Marea party were absent. Other irregularities were related to the shipment of incomplete, damaged, and unusable electoral documents.
- Receiving ballot papers: The deadline to send the ballot papers back was extended for permanent residents abroad but not for temporary residents. This could have caused confusion among the voters. As a consequence, voters received them late and there were also abnormalities recorded due to the narrow time allowed to send them back.
- Delivering ballots: Many ballots sent abroad were returned to their point of origin, and the exact cause of this is unknown – it is possibly due to mistakes regarding voters’ addresses.
- Placing ballots in boxes: Problems arose after consulate staff gave voters the wrong information about how to fill out the envelope, thus rendering some votes invalid.
Translation by Luke McWilliams.